Text of a paper delivered at QIER lunch-time presentation in Education House, 8 June 1989.
I have been asked to speak to you today about some of the issues which are being considered by the new Board of Senior Secondary School Studies and I am-pleased to have the opportunity to do this. However, let me make clear from the beginning that because we are only a new Board, many of the issues I will discuss are yet to be considered, though some have been at least raised as we have grappled with the request from the Minister to review the present Tertiary Entrance (TE) Score system. I must also make clear that I am not attempting to present the views of the Board on these various issues but rather I am attempting to share with you a more personal perspective.
At the first meeting of the Board, I felt that it was very necessary for me to make some comments about the Board because it was absolutely essential that all members understood that we were a new Board and not the former Board of Secondary School Studies simply renamed. The changed nature of the new Board is reflected in its name, its membership, and its functions. So let me briefly comment on these.
The change of title is not simply a cosmetic change and is intended to demonstrate that this Board is a different Board because our concern is with the senior years of secondary education. This does not mean that we must see these years in isolation from what comes before and what comes after but it does mean that our energies have to be directed to the senior years. I should also point out that while this title clearly indicates the emphasis of the Board, the present legislation requires the Board to have a maintenance role in regard to the Junior Certificate. This is a source of some concern for while we have this role, it is too easily seen as a case of the old Board under a new name trying desperately to hold onto its territory. I would hope this problem will be resolved soon so we can all concentrate on the real concern - the sound education provided by our schools.
The Board differs too in its composition for it now represents a much wider range of interests. It is worth my indicating the differences.
|Board of Secondary|
|Board of Senior Secondary|
|Nominees of Director-General (minimum of three teachers)||8||3|
|Higher education institutions||6||2|
|Nominees of Queensland Teachers Union||2||1|
|Nominee of Queensland Association of Teachers in Independent Schools||1||1|
|Nominee of Board of Teacher Registration||-||1|
|Representative of community groups||-||3|
|Nominee of Minister for Employment, Training and Industrial Affairs||-||1|
|Nominee of Catholic Education Office||-||1|
|Nominee of Association of Independent Schools||-||1|
|Representatives of industry and and commerce||-||2|
This diversity of representation on a smaller Board will almost certainly result in different perspectives. Most of us are very new to the area and probably we will reflect many of the confusions to be found in the broader community. This will no doubt lead to much questioning to gain information, to clarify complex issues, and also to challenge existing concepts and practice.
The final aspect of difference is with the functions of the Board and while these are mostly similar to those of the former Board, there are significant differences in the wording to the two Acts. While it may well be that these changes represent the legislation catching up with the actual practice, the changes are quite clear and it is important to note these briefly. The old Board was charged with approving syllabuses for those subjects designated, or to be designated, Board subjects on Junior Certificates and on Senior Certificates. The new Board must approve syllabuses for those subjects developed by schools, school systems, authorities, other institutions or by the Board itself which are designated, or are to be designated, Board subjects on the Senior Certificate and further must approve work programs for subjects which are designated, or are to be designated, Board or Board registered subjects on the Senior Certificate. There are two points to be stressed here. The first is that the new Act specifies a number of sources for the development of syllabuses whereas the old Act made no reference to the origin of syllabuses. However, the second point specifies a critical role for the Board, namely, approval of the various syllabuses and there are many issues relating to syllabus development and syllabus and work program approval which will need to be addressed by the Board and by those other agencies which are involved in the offering of the Senior years of schooling. This will be a difficult task because it will require some changes to be made to present practices and that will only be achieved if we can rid ourselves of territorial paranoia and replace it by an educational partnership which is dedicated to quality education for our Senior students.
There are now to be three types of subjects: Board subjects for those subjects where there is a syllabus approved by the Board; Board registered subjects for those subjects other than a Board subject for which a work program has been approved by the Board; and recorded subjects which refer to 'any subject, other than a Board subject or Board registered subject, offered by a school, college or technical and further education or other approved educational institution, and the results of which are recorded on Board certificates other than Junior Certificates'.
Whereas the old Board was responsible for procedures for the assessment of students, the new Board is responsible for the recording of results as well. The new Board has a requirement to confer and collaborate with a range of institutions and not just with the Department of Education as was required of the old Board. Finally, while the old Board was heavily involved in tertiary entrance, this interestingly enough was not specified as a function. The new Board, however, is to advise the Minister on principles relating to tertiary entrance and to undertake such procedures in relation to tertiary entrance, as the Minister may from time to time direct.
In my brief statement to the Board, I also told them of my meeting with two representatives of the Queensland Association of Teachers in Independent Schools (QATIS). During the course of that discussion I was asked what changes did I see in regard to the role of the new Board. Let me try to capture at least the main thrust of my improvisation at that point. I believe that the board must be concerned with change not because of any 'new-broom syndrome' but because the Board is focussed on those years of secondary education which are under pressure to change. These years now involve an increasing percentage of the age cohort and this means that schools must cater for a group of markedly differing abilities, motivation and aspirations than has been the case in earlier years. And this must be done in the context of a society which is rapidly changing, which is itself confused and uncertain. Of course, I hastened to point out to the Board that while change must be our concern, we must at least initially follow in the path that has been prepared for us by the former Board. And I think that I must emphasise this point. I expect the Board to be an initiator of changes in the educational provisions in the Senior or non-compulsory years but we must be sensitive to the frustrations experienced by teachers as they endeavour to cope with what many perceive to be constant educational change. However, while there has been and will continue to be change in education, I suspect that the frustration and 'burn-out' experienced by teachers may be a response to not only educational change but to the even greater changes occurring in society. I suspect that teachers are reflecting the social phenomena of normlessness, powerlessness and angst which appear to accompany social change, especially when the change is constant and rapid! The frustrations are deepened when teachers are called on to make professional changes for which their original teacher education may have provided a poor foundation, or for which they are ill-prepared because of the lack of well-developed in-service programs. And we also must realise that some will be incapable of adapting to change because of their own cognitive and behavioural rigidity.
Of course by now your reading of the newspapers will have made you aware that the Minister is anxious to see the Board re-examine the difficult issue of TE Scores and tertiary entrance. The Minister has made this clear to me at a meeting the Director of the Board, Mr Pitman, and I had with him prior to that press release. The Minister indicated that his request to the Board is a result of continuing community concern and an increasing pressure from some members of the community for a return to the external examination system. In his discussions with us, the Minister indicated that he thought that while retaining the strengths of the present school-based assessment, a battery of tests might be introduced rather like the battery of tests known as TEEP (Tertiary Education Entrance Project) which was the forerunner of the present ASAT (Australian Scholastic Aptitude Test). I must stress that the Minister made it clear then and in his subsequent statements that he was not attempting to constrain the thinking of the Board but rather he was putting forward an alternative approach as an example of alternatives to the present system. Of course, the media have grabbed hold of part of what he has said and will now attempt to provoke community response for as long as the item is judged to be newsworthy! In some way I was responsible for the recent dramatic headline indicating that the present TE Score would be replaced by 1992. What actually happened was that a reporter asked me how soon would the Board come up with any changes to the present TE Score. I replied that there was some degree of urgency because after any decision was made to make changes to the present system, there would be a two year time lag before that change was fully implemented simply because we can't change rules for students who are already in the Senior years. Well, you can see that she did her sums and came up with 1992!
What I have attempted to do in this first section of my address is to provide some background in terms of the new Board and the expectation of change. What I want to do now is to explore some of the issues which I believe the Board and other bodies, such as schools, school systems and tertiary institutions, have to address.
In my career as a teacher educator, I have always been grateful for the new insights into education I have gained as my two daughters have experienced schooling. (I have deliberately used the word 'schooling' because while I know that they received schooling, I do not believe that they received a comprehensive, well-balanced education!) When my daughters commenced schooling, I was made to re-think so many practices which as a teacher I had accepted as a necessary part of school life. I also became more aware of the dynamics of the teaching-learning process and of the awesome power which teachers had to prove me as a parent wrong about my children. Let me hasten to assure you that I was never an 'irate parent'. It was simply something of which I became aware in talking with the various teachers who were involved with my children. This awareness has been greatly strengthened by my work in the education of the gifted and talented where parents frequently have great difficulty convincing at least some teachers that their child or children are gifted.
As my daughters progressed through primary schooling, I looked again at myself as a primary school teacher and I reviewed what I was presenting to my students who were preparing to be primary school teachers. I certainly became a better teacher educator for this experience. When my daughters entered secondary school, I was now into less familiar territory for many years had passed since my own days as a secondary student. As the years of secondary passed for my daughters, I had many occasions to question what was happening to them and many opportunities to talk with their peers and with other parents. I also now began to look differently at my new teacher education students and to talk to them more about their secondary education especially in their Senior years.
During this time, I was also on the Board of Teacher Education and was very involved in the Board's report, 'Project 21'. In addition, I was a member of the Ministerial Committee on Distance Education and subsequently a member of the committee responsible for developing the two new Distance Education Centres at Longreach and Charters Towers and on the committee advising on the new School of Distance Education. I mention these details only because my work on such committees made me question the educational system, especially the secondary school system.
Having given this background to my thinking, let me at last try to identify some of the issues which have emerged for me during these past years.
One of the most obvious problems which emerged was the extent and the nature of assessment especially in the Senior years. Not only do Senior students have to attend school for the 'normal school day' of some six hours but they must also carry out three other types of tasks outside school hours
As I talked with other parents, with teachers and with students themselves, especially those who had survived and made it to tertiary education, over-assessment was clearly a major problem. It remains a problem, I believe, and needs to be examined. We need to identify and analyse the pressures that have resulted in this problem and we then need to determine whether those pressures can be eliminated or at least diminished and then whether they should be eliminated or diminished. And having said that I must point out that the former Board was aware of the problem of over-assessment and as syllabuses have been developed or revised, there has been a reduction in the amount of assessment required by the Board. This then indicates that there is another aspect to this problem and that is the teachers themselves. It would seem that some teachers have a poor understanding of assessment techniques and perhaps of greater significance, they have a poor understanding of the relationship between teaching, learning and assessment and consequently fail to realise that student performance on a piece of assessment is not only providing feedback on the student's learning but also on the quality of the teaching involved. For some, the constant pressure of homework is a measure of academic rigour and of excellence in teaching, all of which are regarded as leading to excellence in learning outcomes. For some, homework is not provided to reinforce and even expand and enrich learning but is provided as a means of teaching content not covered in class and thus, it is a means of 'keeping up'. There is, I believe, an urgent need for in-service education of teachers so that educationally defensible and more realistic programs of assessment can be put in place. In this way we can reduce the present gap between syllabus guidelines and actual classroom practice.
Let me now turn to another problem. When my elder daughter was in Year 10 I attended a Parent evening at which a Guidance Officer gave advice on subject selection for Senior. In the course of his talk, he gave the following piece of advice: If your children want to keep their options open for tertiary study, they should take English, Mathematics I and II, Physics and Chemistry. And of course this leaves the student with one subject to choose - perhaps from interest? This advice will be all too familiar to those who have attended such evenings. The advice as the system presently operates is sound advice but what results is that in order to keep options 'open', students must follow an extremely restricted program, of which much may be of little relevance to their future studies. There are other consequences, however.
Of the large number of Board subjects which students can select for study in Senior, the majority of students take their subjects from a very narrow range of those subjects dominated by English, Mathematics I and II, Physics and Chemistry have the largest enrolments. So while we do offer a wide range of subjects at Senior and while this range provides a rich variety, the real and perceived prerequisites of tertiary programs constrain choices and constrict the education of our young people.
It is necessary to note, however, that while there are many Board subjects from which students as a Statewide group can choose, that choice is dramatically reduced at the individual school level because of staffing constraints, timetabling constraints, and the need to maintain viable groups for particular subjects. With the pressure on the traditional cluster of subjects, other subjects face a constant battle for survival and are more vulnerable to staff changes and declines in student demand.
Returning to the narrow traditional band of subjects, there are other problems, real or perceived. It is claimed by some that students selecting the traditional cluster of subjects will achieve a higher TE Score than they would have achieved had they taken a different mix of subjects. It is said that a student will gain a higher TE Score with Sound Achievement in Mathematics I and II, Physics and Chemistry than the student who gains High Achievement in other subjects regarded as 'soft' subjects. Although these claims are refuted by others, including officers of my Board, students perceive this advantage in studying the traditional cluster of subjects and this further reinforces the drawing power of these subjects.
Now while I see great value in students studying mathematics and science and would probably regard these as core studies in secondary programs, I have great concerns regarding the consequences of having students constrain their studies to such a narrow range. I am told that these syllabuses are necessary because they are prerequisites for tertiary studies in mathematics and science but I must question this. I think that in any educational sequence, it is very easy for the last stage in that sequence to make curriculum decisions which then force the curriculum in the preceding stages to build in more and more content in order to meet the new prerequisite demands. I would suggest that there is a difference between content judged to be an appropriate educational foundation for students who will subsequently move into a variety of vocational programs and content judged to be necessary for disciplinary studies appropriate to a narrow range of highly specialised careers. When subjects are so content driven, there is little time available to emphasise the processes of learning and this is especially the case when the subject becomes both content driven and assessment driven. I think that we really have reached a time when hard evidence needs to be produced to demonstrate why certain studies, and that means certain content, are prerequisites for studies undertaken at the tertiary level.
I have no difficulty with the advice to students to 'keep their options open'. However, if we think that it is important for students to do just that, keep their options open, then we need to consider whether a broader base of subjects might be a much better way of achieving this and incidentally a much rich educational experience. Unfortunately, what 'keeping options open' has really come to mean is doing that range of subjects which, it is perceived, will lead to a high TE Score so that you have a better chance of getting into the course you want or if not at least into an acceptable alternative course. As a result, many students subsequently engage in tertiary studies with a Senior background that has little relevance to what they are now studying and yet they could have chosen other subjects which would have been more appropriate - not because of the content in a prerequisite sense but in a more general sense of useful knowledge, understandings and skills that contribute to that person being regarded as well-educated.
All of this leads me to ask, to what extent are the studies of the Senior years providing an appropriate foundation for tertiary education? Other related questions then spring to mind. Should Senior secondary provide a foundation for what comes next? I have deliberately chosen that vague wording because we need to remember that Senior is followed by a variety of different activities not just by tertiary education. If Senior is judged to be an educational stage providing some form of foundation for experiences which follow, we must then ask what makes an appropriate foundation for these different experiences? Is there a set of knowledge, understandings, skills and attitudes which would form an appropriate foundation for further education, for employment, even for just being a contributing citizen?
These curriculum questions take on greater urgency when we consider the dramatic change in the population of the Senior years. Schools are now faced with providing for a large group of students who no longer fit the pattern of previous years. They have, as I have already indicated, diverse levels of achievement, of ability, of motivation, and of aspirations. While schools offer a diversity of subjects through Board subjects and Board registered School subjects, the misuse of the TE Score by employers and the extent to which the community sees the TE Score as the indicator of success or otherwise at school places this diverse group of students under great pressure to gain the key, the opener of doors, the TE Score! It seems to me that the changed nature of the population in Senior requires us to re-examine the curriculum, its suitability, the pressures that limit choices, and the relationship between Senior and what might come after. However, we must also note that such is the pressure on students to gain a TE Score - irrespective of whether they are really seeking a tertiary place or not, that in 1988, 85.54 per cent of the students in Year 12 received a TE Score. Of those eligible for a TE Score, however, while 80.47 per cent applied for a tertiary place through Queensland Tertiary Admissions Centre (QTAC) and offers went to 51.45 per cent, only 38.76 per cent accepted offers. This data suggests that while we might see a need to change the curriculum in Senior to accommodate the changed population, the powerful influence of the TE Score will inhibit radical changes. We can make radical changes only if we as a society make some radical changes in our beliefs about the role of secondary education!
Having referred to the TE Score already, I need now to consider some of the issues associated with it. The 1987 Annual Report of the Board of Secondary School Studies states in regard to the TE Score, 'The main problem continues to be the lack of sufficient places at tertiary institutions to cater for the number of applicants. This problem has stimulated some community concern and has caused undue pressure to be placed on the Tertiary Entrance Score.' Certainly the restriction on the number of tertiary places is a problem and does put pressure on the TE Score especially when selection for tertiary places is based on the single criterion of the TE Score. However, there are other concerns which I have and in raising these I acknowledge from the outset that these concerns are not the necessary result of the TE Score but may be a result of misuse or misunderstanding.
Is the TE Score the best predictor of success in tertiary studies? Can it be shown to be the best predictor of success for particular programs of tertiary studies? It would seem to me that whilesoever students are selected on a single criterion such as the TE Score then it is very difficult to demonstrate the validity or otherwise of the TE Score as a predictor of success. Of course we can argue that students must have maximum TE Scores to cope with the academic rigours of, for example, Medicine, but unless we can compare the performance of the group chosen on the single criterion of a 990 TE Score with a group chosen on criteria judged to be appropriate for success not just in the academic program but in the profession itself, we cannot really talk about predictions of success. Similarly we can look at the success rate of students, say, with a TE Score of 810 and claim that this reveals that they are less likely to succeed but unless we recognise that many of these students will be taking courses into which they managed to get rather than courses which they really wanted to do, then we can make no real claims for the power of the TE Score. Frankly, if we want to look at the best indicator of success at tertiary studies, we are much better to look at the performance of students at the end of their first semester of tertiary studies! Of course to gain any benefit for this predictor we would need to adopt a system of open entry into tertiary and that would seem to be unrealistic - at least at this time.
I would like to suggest that the failure of tertiary institutions to develop selection procedures which utilise other criteria in addition to a TE Score has had the unfortunate effect of reinforcing the materialistic goal pressures on students. Let me explain. Careers guidance of both the formal and the informal types place a heavy emphasis on financial rewards of various occupations. The message is clear: Choose a job which will give you the most money - so that can buy all the wonderful things offered to us for our comfort and enjoyment! Selecting a career for non-materialistic reasons such as wanting to help others, etc., is quaintly old-fashioned and the word 'vocational' has lost its roots in the word 'vocation' meaning 'a divine call to, a sense of fitness for, a career or occupation'. So in this materialistic press, the prestige careers of medicine and law become the goal of many not because of any vocational need but because of the promise of financial rewards. Given this, the faculties concerned are able to select the highest achieving students as indicated by the TE Score without any regard for other criteria. Thus the higher the TE Score the greater the opportunity to get into courses which will lead to careers promising the greatest financial return. It is little wonder then that teacher education cannot compete with courses attracting the higher levels of TE Score when teaching cannot offer the financial rewards of other professions and where the nature of teaching has been demonstrated to students for years! It is little wonder then that we find the careers selection taking place in the manner that is revealed in the following true discussion:
Me to young lad who had just completed Senior: How did your Senior turn out?I can't blame this young man but I can express my concern that at no time did he mention wanting to pursue physiotherapy or medicine or indeed anything because of non-materialistic goals.
Lad: Oh, well. I received a 990 TE Score.
Me: Well done! And I suppose you are going to do medicine?
Lad: Well I had thought about that but I've decided to do Physiotherapy because I can make just as much money but work less hours!
So it is in this context that I believe the use of the TE Score as a single criterion for selection has reinforced a materialistic preoccupation in career selection which may be further reinforced by the type of educational experiences provided subsequently in the professional preparation.
It would also seem to be that the use of the single criterion of the TE Score gives full weight to the rank order of the student and ignores the academic profile which has lead to that rank order. How the academic profile might be used for selection is another issue which has been addressed to some extent in some courses in some institutions. Now there is another component that contributes to the TE Score which is of interest to me and that is the ASAT result. It is worth reminding ourselves that the test is called the 'Australian Scholastic Aptitude Test'. It is in fact a test of general intellectual ability used, however, for scaling purposes. Yet it would seem to me that how well an individual student performed on a test claimed to be a test of general intellectual ability and called a test of scholastic aptitude would be useful information which together with an academic profile would enable selection to be done against certain criteria identified as being important not only for success in the program but in the career for which the program is a preparation.
My remarks have largely been addressed to the tertiary sector so far but I cannot talk about the TE Score without commenting on the worst misuse of this score and that is by employers. Recently, a small business in Toowoomba - a Travel Agent - advertised a vacancy. The advertisement stated that applicants should have a minimum TE Score of 900!!! What a minimum TE Score of 900 has to do with suitability to work as a travel agent I do not know. I have been since told that he had advertised this way in order to restrict the applicants to better quality ones because otherwise he has to waste his time interviewing applicants who simply aren't suitable. Perhaps if he had made clear what he was looking for in his staff member he might have drawn appropriate responses. When TE Scores are used to select apprentices, to reduce the number of applicants for positions and as a basis for the selection of people into the workforce, then this is a gross misuse of a score which was designed to indicate suitability for tertiary study. But this misuse has a more serious consequence and that is that it puts pressure on students to gain a TE Score even though they may not intend entering tertiary or may not have the ability to succeed in tertiary studies. As a consequence these students are forced to turn away from School subjects which would form more appropriate studies for them and instead are directed to Board subjects necessary for the achieving of a TE Score. Thus for these students it is better to do poorly in subjects which will still give you a TE Score of sorts than to do well in subjects which might well be more appropriate to them in their future work and as contributing citizens. And these concerns must be placed in the context of my earlier comments about the curriculum and about the changing population in Senior.
There are other issues concerning the TE Score which are commonly raised by parents, teachers, and by students themselves but I do not intend pursuing these. What I must say, however, is that despite the efforts of the Board and of teachers, there remains considerable confusion about the Senior years of secondary, especially in regard to the TE Score and selection into tertiary. Last year, at a Speech Day I attended, the Senior Girl presented part of the Principal's Report and in that section, she commented on the mysteries of the TE Score and on the confusion and ignorance felt by the students. Although a one-to-one counselling program was put in place in that school to clarify the 'mysteries', she concluded by saying that this had helped but had not eliminated the problems. Now it does seem that when a system is so complex that the client group and even those involved in working with the client group do not fully comprehend the system, then that system needs to be reviewed. (I wonder how well the system of Senior assessment and the TE Score is understood by those in tertiary institutions who use the TE Score as the single criterion for making selection judgments.)
At present the emphasis for the exiting Senior student is on the TE Score and this reflects a very powerful relationship between the Senior years and tertiary education, as I have touched on during this presentation. I do not believe that we can make the same claim for a relationship between Senior and the business world despite the fact that the majority of students completing Senior will not enter tertiary education but will instead seek employment. Recognition of this reality must cause us to ask the critical question, namely, What is the proper role for the Senior years of secondary education? Is it to prepare students for entry into tertiary education? Is it to prepare them for entry into industry and commerce? Is it neither of these but an end in itself, of value in itself? Is it, can it be all of these? Can something which is valuable in itself educationally still provide an appropriate foundation for what might follow? Concerns such as I have raised today can only be properly dealt with when we take a serious look at the role of education especially in the Senior years. Until we address this question, we will do little to satisfy those interested in the outcomes of Senior and those who have to endure whatever it is that we decide is good for them! I would hope that as we search for answers, we might find time to listen more closely to what the students themselves can tell us, for until we do, we are perilously close to turning both secondary and tertiary education into a monstrous production line.
|Please cite as: Imison, K. (1989). Issues in senior secondary education. Queensland Researcher, 5(2), 4-22. http://www.iier.org.au/qjer/qr5/imison.html|